Are you finding that you and your colleagues are even more distracted than normal? Is distraction detracting from your productivity, causing friction among teammates, or contributing to everyone’s general anxiety? That’s the sense I’m getting.

In the last two weeks: I was…

  • In a meeting when the team leader got up and walked out with no explanation of where he was going. Um, hello?!? Are you coming back? Should we stop talking? Very awkward. 
  • Facilitating a discussion while a team member emailed participants about a completely different topic. Are we in the same meeting? Did I miss a memo?
  • Hosting a meeting where two people turned off their cameras with no explanation. Are you there? Did you leave for a moment? Did your wifi crap out? Should I stop calling on you? 
  • Talking to someone while they were looking behind me instead of making eye contact. Is George Clooney behind me? Is something on fire? What am I missing?

I’m sure you could add to the list.

On good days, I’m empathetic. You have too much going on. Too many tasks. Too much to worry about. Your workload is high, and your thoughtload is higher. I get how hard it is to stay focused when you’ve got a million things to do and a billion things to worry about.

While I’m empathetic, I also know that the torrent won’t stop anytime soon, and we can’t afford to let it zap our productivity, reduce the effectiveness of our collaborations, or cause friction in our relationships. So we have to do better.

How to Manage Distractions

Time to get serious about managing distractions. Can you try any of the following to reduce the frequency or severity of distraction or at least to reduce the feeling of disrespect it causes?

Set Yourself Up for Success

  • When you’re in control of scheduling, slot your most important work at times of day when you can focus the most easily.
  • Start your day by reviewing your calendar and prioritizing heads down and heads up times.
  • Leave white space before important meetings so you can address anything urgent before you start. At the very least, book one-hour meetings for 50 minutes, so you’ve got 10 minutes to make a quick call if needed.
  • Be clear and specific with those around you about what does and does not constitute appropriate grounds to interrupt you. Agree on how you’ll communicate with one another on non-urgent issues (e.g., email or Slack) and how they should get hold of you if something needs your immediate attention. (I recommend making your urgent communication vehicle the phone. People don’t like making phone calls anymore, so you’re only going to get a call if it’s essential.)
  • Turn off all notifications except the one you reserve for urgent matters. I love that my phone has a Do Not Disturb option linked to my calendar, and with one click, I can pause notifications until the end of a scheduled meeting.

Make Focus the Norm

  • I’m a big fan of having one person in a meeting taking notes projected onto the screen. That way, no one has the excuse of “I’m just taking notes” to keep their computer open. Even if they start taking notes, it’s way too tempting to pop into email.
  • Give everyone Silly Putty. We do this when facilitating because a bit of motor stimulation can help with attention. Some of the email checking is just a way of burning off a little nervous energy. Silly Putty is a better option. It makes meetings feel much shorter!
  • Start a conversation or a meeting by asking people to check-in. If something is distracting them, it’s helpful to know. Ask whether you should reschedule or else agree to how you’re going to handle the discussion (e.g., “I’m all yours unless my daughter’s doctor phones. I would need to step out to answer that.”)
  • Use shorter, more focused meetings as a bribe. “If I could have your undivided attention for 15 minutes, I think we can get done what’s needed.”
  • Try walking meetings. Moving will naturally disperse some energy that builds up when sitting still. Plus, looking at your phone when you’re already walking and talking is harder. You can do this in person or have people in different locations walking while listening to the call on headphones.

Give A Way Out

  • When someone is behaving as if they’re distracted (looking elsewhere, typing on their phone or computer), say something…
    • “Is there something you need to deal with?”
    • “Should we take a break for a minute?”
    • “Do you need to defer our conversation?”
  • If multiple people in a meeting are distracted, call it, say something like…
    • “There are four people on phones right now.” (That’s usually all it takes for people to put them away sheepishly.)
    • “Is this agenda item relevant to everyone, or should we table it?” (To be fair, I see so many agenda items that don’t belong that I’m sympathetic to those who want to get something checked off their to-do list rather than listening to an issue where they can’t add value.)
    • Invite people back into the discussion. “John, Danique, Ateesh, I’d love to get your thoughts on this issue.” 

Own It When It’s You

Busy person apologizingYou know I’m not so naïve as to think that everyone else is the problem while you’re completely innocent, always-on, ruthlessly focused, right? So what do you do when it’s you who’s distracted?

  • When you know in advance that you’re likely to be distracted, have the courtesy to tell people that you’ve got something else going on. Either ask for accommodation or give them your word that you’ll try to minimize the imposition.
  • When you catch yourself having been distracted, apologize and ask for the person to reiterate what they were saying. “I’m so sorry. I was distracted. This is important; could you repeat what you said?”
  • If you can’t get focused and won’t do the conversation justice, ask if you can defer. You might only need ten minutes to clear up something urgent, or you might need a more future-oriented decision to wait a week until you’re through your month end. Just be candid about what you need.

The Final Word: Compartmentalize

I’ve written many words (and spoken a few on YouTube, as well) about why we need to deprioritize more rigorously and how we can counteract our natural tendency to do more and more and more. Whether or not you can shrink your workload, it’s important to compartmentalize it. Otherwise, distraction will make you less efficient, cause rifts in your relationships, and cause your anxiety to spiral—one thing at a time.

Further Reading

Prevent Slack and MS Teams From Overwhelming Your Team

Why You Think You’re Listening, but You’re Not

Are you meeting at the wrong time?

Video: Identify your individual stress pattern and use tailored techniques to manage your overwhelm

Other Resources: I found a few really practical tips on this post by Serene